WASHINGTON — Top thoroughbred breeders, owners, trainers and veterinary experts spoke out at a congressional hearing Thursday on injecting horses with steroids before high-stakes races, questionable breeding practices and forcing exhausted animals to race to the point of injury.
"Today too many breeders end up producing heavily conformed upper-body muscled horses with relatively fragile legs," Jess Jackson, an owner of award-winning thoroughbreds, told the committee." It's like having Arnold Schwarzenegger's body and Don Knotts' legs."
The hearing by a House Energy and Commerce Committee subcommittee was prompted in part by the revelation that Kentucky Derby and Preakness winner Big Brown was given steroids regularly, and by the fatal breakdown in the Kentucky Derby of second-place finisher Eight Belles. Shortly after crossing the finish line, the filly broke both front legs and was euthanized on the track.
Though necropsy results showed that Eight Belles hadn't been given steroids, thoroughbred experts told the panel they worried that breeding practices had resulted in an animal prone to injury.
Lawmakers also worry that recent high-profile deaths — including Eight Belles, 2006 Kentucky Derby winner Barbaro after his Preakness injury and George Washington in last year's Breeder's Cup Classic — point to a persistent, widespread problem in the industry and suggest the need for a central governing body to enforce uniform rules. Experts testified that pharmacological advances have hurt racing by masking infirmities and perpetuating breeding problems.
Critics say administering anabolic steroids to horses to boost stamina and power and mask fatigue is exploitive.
"It's like chemical warfare," Hall of Fame trainer Jack Van Berg told the committee.
Though controversial, the use of steroids is legal in horse racing. Steroids often are used for medicinal purposes when a horse falls ill or is injured. Rick Dutrow, Big Brown's trainer, has been criticized for giving his horse the steroid Winstrol before the colt's Kentucky Derby win. The colt's poor performance in the Belmont fueled speculation that he finished last because he hadn't had his monthly shot.
Despite being called to testify, Dutrow didn't attend Thursday's hearing.
"We had expected Rick Dutrow. I'd like to note the empty place. Apparently Mr. Dutrow is too ill to travel to D.C.," said Rep. Jan Schakowsky, D-Ill., who chaired the hearing. "Unfortunately, Mr. Dutrow never informed the committee of his illness." She said Dutrow hadn't responded to repeated attempts by committee staff to contact him.
In a written statement to the committee, Dutrow defended administering steroids. "People have asked me why I do it," he wrote. "It helps the horses eat better. Their coats brighten. They're more alert. It helps them train."
He also acknowledged in the statement that his barn was penalized five years ago when traces of the prohibited drug mepivicane turned up in one of his horses, but he added that he doesn't use it and doesn't know how it happened. He was suspended and fined at the time.
The National Thoroughbred Racing Association, a Jockey Club safety committee that formed after Eight Belles' death and other groups have proposed varying degrees of steroid bans.
If adopted nationally, the National Thoroughbred Racing Association-backed ban on steroid use in the month before a race would take effect by December and would be in place for next year's Triple Crown.
The Jockey Club's safety panel called for the nation's racing jurisdictions to ban all but four androgenic-anabolic steroids in racing horses. Those four — boldenone, nandrolone, stanozolol and testosterone — would be tightly regulated. For instance, a vet could give a horse only one of the four, and not within 30 days of a race.
The Jockey Club also wants to ban traction devices such as "toe grabs" on front horseshoes and to change the use of whips, which also came under increased scrutiny during this year's Triple Crown season.
Similar recommendations on shoes, whips and steroids have been made before, but the industry is slow to adopt changes because states set their own horse-racing regulations. Fewer than a dozen out of 38 racing states regulate anabolic steroids. Kentucky, Maryland and New York, where the three legs of the Triple Crown take place, allow steroid use.
The racing industry has resisted broader oversight.
Alex Waldrop, the chief executive officer of the National Thoroughbred Racing Association, said revisions on steroid use and other safety issues would be in place by the end of the year. Alan Marzelli, the president and chief operating officer of the Jockey Club, said he favored letting the industry continue its changes.
Kentucky Rep. Edward Whitfield, the ranking Republican on the subcommittee, said the industry had promised change before.
"You can only recommend," he said. "Do you have the power to put this into effect?"
Marzelli said the group had "the power of persuasion" and consensus.
"I think your record would reflect you lack even that power," Whitfield responded. "I think it's been clearly demonstrated that the NTRA and the Jockey Club do not have the authority."
Whitfield has suggested using the 1978 Interstate Horseracing Act, which regulates simulcasts, to force states to enact minimum drug testing and safety standards. Simulcasts account for 90 percent of the $15 billion wagered annually on thoroughbred racing. States that don't comply wouldn't be able to enter that market.
"I can't think of any other stick that would work," ESPN analyst Randy Moss said.
(Patton, of the Lexington Herald-Leader, reported from Lexington, Ky.)